The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Equivocation includes, from left, Andrew Hurteau, Craig Marker and Lance Gardner. Photos by Kevin Berne.
Now heading into the final weekend of a well-deserved extended run, Marin Theatre Company’s Equivocation is enormously enjoyable theater.
I liked Bill Cain’s play last summer when I saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and I still like its muscular, hugely entertaining theatricality. The Marin production, directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, is more intimate but just as rewarding.
The cast boasts some of the Bay Area’s finest – Anna Bullard (the lone woman in the cast), Lance Gardner, Andrew Hurteau, Craig Marker, Andy Murray, and Charles Shaw Robinson – as they crawl around J.B. Wilson’s scaffolding set that reminds of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Where else would you want to set a story of William Shakespeare, or Shagspeare as he’s called in the play?
As Cain’s play imagines Will attempting to write a piece of propaganda theater for bonny King James (and his henchman, Sir Robert Cecil) and discovering that what he writes has to be the truth or nothing, something very interesting happens. Cain’s immense knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays and British history coalesce into a drama that feels recognizably human yet epic in its scope and more than just a little bit contemporary.
It’s so easy to forget that Shakespeare’s plays came from a human being, albeit a phenomenally talented human being (and for the sake of argument, let’s deny the Shakespeare deniers). Like Tom Stoppard did in Shakespeare in Love, Cain wants to remind us that Will Shakespeare was a son, a husband, a philanderer, a father and a successful artist. Whereas Stoppard’s movie was comic and romantic, Cain’s play is more intellectual and of the theater. But both makes us care anew about Shakespeare and stop to consider what it might have been like for him to actually create plays like Macbeth or King Lear. Something similar happened with Amadeus – we were asked to consider that Mozart was a brilliant composer and flawed human being and that his work wasn’t always “classical music.” At a certain point, it was fresh and new and surprising. We’ve turned his music into an institution, just as we have Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s refreshing when artists like Bill Cain come along to toy with our notions of why something great is actually great.
In Equivocation, Shakespeare is commissioned by the king to create a play about the Gunpowder Plot, a thwarted attempt to blow up the king and Parliament. But Will can’t muster any enthusiasm for the “powder plot” because, in dramatic terms, there’s no plot. The more he investigates, the more he discovers about a royal cover-up and dastardly deeds done by the overly ambitious Cecil.
Robinson (seen at right with Hurteau) is Will, an earnest if ego-conflicted playwright and mediocre father two his two daughters (we only meet Judith, an underwritten role played with aplomb by Bullard). He and Cecil (a brilliant Hurteau) loathe each other, but Will has a theater troupe to feed, so he accepts the king’s commission to write a play about current events. Will’s research leads him to the prison cells of the accused traitors, the most fascinating of which is Father Henry Garnet (Murray), whose theory about equivocation is that it allows you to tell the truth under difficult circumstances. You don’t have to compromise your morals if you learn to answer the answer really being asked of you – the question under the question.
And this is where Cain’s play gets really interesting – what’s the play under the play? Could it be about U.S. politics? Of course it could. But it’s also so wonderfully theatrical that, at its best, this play crackles with energy. Like most of the actors, Marker plays a member of Shakespeare’s troupe and several other roles – traitors, royals or whatever’s necessary. This role shifting provides some stellar moments for the actors, as when Marker gets to be an actor in a play and the king watching the play at the same time.
Theater about theater can come across as so much navel gazing in a spotlight, but Equivocation gazes into all the right places, questioning everything and putting on a hell of a good show.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Equivocation closes May 2 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$54. Call 415 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.